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Battle Group To Bypass Vieques For Training

by Jack Dorsey

February 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE VIRGINIA-PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR. All Rights Reserved.

The Navy will sail a 14-ship battle group into the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico for training, rather than count on the availability of the controversial bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

While the range is scheduled to reopen this spring, according to a deal reached between the Clinton administration and the government of Puerto Rico, the Navy said it cannot count on it.

"If during the exercise, the range becomes available," said Cmdr. Bill Spann, a spokesman for the Norfolk-based 2nd Fleet, "we will attempt to utilize it.

"But a variety of things will have to happen for that to come to pass, such as removing the protesters and recertifying the range."

A dozen or so protesters remain on the tiny island despite the announced agreement that calls for the range to reopen to the Navy. Under the agreement, the Navy will drop only inert bombs and shells unless islanders agree to allow live munitions.

The Navy owns about two-thirds of the 33,000-acre island and has used it as a live training range for the past 50 years. In April, a Marine Corps jet dropped two bombs off target, killing a civilian security guard and wounding four people. Protests have effectively closed the range since.

The carrier George Washington battle group, which is scheduled to deploy overseas in about six months, is just beginning its training workup for that cruise, Spann said.

A rigid set of training exercises - called Composite Training Unit Exercise - require the ships, along with the carrier's air wing, to conduct certain live-fire missions.

However, with the Vieques bombing range closed, some of those requirements have had to be ignored because the Navy has few other places to go.

Two Florida sites - one at Pinecastle, just south of Jacksonville, and another at Eglin Air Force Base, 60 miles east of Pensacola - allow some bombing missions, Spann said.

But the military is limited in the type of ordinance it can use there and the altitude at which it can be dropped.

"It is nowhere near the reality we get at Vieques ," Spann said. "The Navy still desires to utilize the training range at Vieques at the earliest possible opportunity."

The battle group is scheduled to conduct a series of COMPTUEX exercises between March 8 and April 7. If Vieques is not available, the ships will concentrate their maneuvers in the western Atlantic, south of Virginia to Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico, off Florida's west coast.

The George Washington is the second carrier battle group that has been seriously affected by the closing of the Vieques range.

The carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, which leaves next week for its six-month overseas deployment, was forced to embark on a patchwork program of training at numerous other sites.

It was a process that forced Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jay Johnson to acknowledge that the ships "will not be combat-ready" when they leave Norfolk.

It also was something the Navy said it would not allow to happen that way again.

Asked Friday if the George Washington isn't embarking on the same path, Spann agreed that it probably is.

"But we don't have a choice," he said. "Unfortunately, we find ourselves in the same situation."

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